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Niyo: Big Ten made correct, if not popular, decision to postpone football season

John Niyo
The Detroit News

If misery loves company, at least the Big Ten had the Pac-12 to share the burden Tuesday.

And that was by design, in the same way this announcement — that two of the Power Five conferences in college football were punting their fall sports schedules to next spring — was out of necessity.

There is will be no fans and no football this year at Michigan Stadium this season as the Big Ten football season has been cancelled due to concerns over the spread of the coronavirus and the Covid-19 illness.

Understanding the strength in numbers is imperative not just when you’re assessing the medical risks in the middle of a pandemic. But also when you’re weighing the public-relations damage and political fallout from a decision this monumental, scrapping a football season for the first time in the 125-year history of your league and postponing the rest of your fall sports as well.

“We had big plans,” explained Kevin Warren, the Big Ten’s new commissioner who sounded as glum as he looked in delivering the bad news on the league’s network Tuesday afternoon. “Our student-athletes have worked hard to prepare. Our administrators have come together. We've tried to do everything we could possibly do to have a fall season.”

More:Big Ten makes it official, postpones football season

More:Pac-12 follows Big Ten, pulls plug on fall football

But, he added, “it's one thing to make plans,” and another to go through with them. “It’s difficult in uncertainty."

Yet these are uncertain times, so the difficult decisions ultimately are unavoidable. And to the Big Ten’s credit, the people in charge went ahead and did what they felt they had to do, even if that opinion was far from unanimous.

Warren, whose on-camera performance Tuesday was uninspiring, at best, wouldn’t share the results of the final vote among the 14-member conference’s leadership, but one university — Nebraska — has made it quite clear it was against this move. Ohio State and Iowa also were pushing for another pause or delay, rather than the postponement that was made official after another league-wide meeting Tuesday morning. And the 11th-hour lobbying from prominent coaches and scores of players certainly got everyone’s attention, if not their vote.

Still, even as they went first — Leaders and Legends and all — Warren and the rest of the Big Ten’s decision-makers knew they wouldn’t be the last, at least. The Pac-12 quickly followed suit with a unanimous vote to postpone all sports competition through the end of December. That’s a move that also pushes back the start of college basketball, among other winter sports out West, and probably is a harbinger of things to come elsewhere.

“I'm hopeful that we'll have a different view and a different handle on the pandemic as we move into a late October and November time frame,” Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said in a Big Ten Network interview.

But we heard much the same back in mid-March, when the dominoes began to fall just as the madness was about to begin win the NCAA tournament. And yet here we are, still grappling with many of the same problems five months later, largely because of the way we’ve handled the pandemic in this country.

More:Vital questions as Big Ten heads toward postponing football season

More:Spring football a 'viable option,' Michigan State's Bill Beekman says

The only real differences now are the passion that college football engenders and the politics that have infected just about everything we do, or refuse to do. If we’d all worn masks and listened to the science when it came to social distancing, maybe the players would be practicing in helmets and preparing for live hitting this fall. Or maybe they wouldn’t. But I bet other college sports would be a go. Instead, they’re all going back to square one on dozens of campuses across the country, with more to follow. 

“Play College Football!” President Donald Trump tweeted Monday, as if it were really just that simple. It’s not, though, and everyone — administrators, coaches, players — knows it. They know there are plenty of risks in pushing ahead with a contact sport. Many are OK with that, as the #WeWantToPlay hashtag made abundantly clear this week. Some are not, as we’ve seen with players opting out of the season even before it was postponed.

But it’s what we don’t know that drove the Big Ten’s decision to pull the plug this week, draining the coffers of tens of millions of dollars for each school. As Dr. Mark Schlissel, an immunologist who also happens to be the University of Michigan’s president, put it Tuesday, “There are currently too many poorly understood health and safety concerns unique to intercollegiate athletics to move forward at present.”

Jim Harbaugh

The Pac-12, too, looked at the research and saw the writing on the wall, citing the limited understanding of some of the long-term effects of the virus, including concerns about heart conditions like myocarditis.

“We’re science-based, we’re academics,” University of Oregon president Michael Schill said. “We’re going to be looking at facts, not just opinions.”

Opinions? Oh, they’ll hear quite a few now, whether it’s Nebraska’s Scott Frost threatening to bolt the Big Ten or Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis inviting players to transfer to schools in his state — you can bet coaches will be doing the same all across the SEC and ACC — or the carnival barker in the White House telling Fox Sports Radio: “I think football is making a tragic mistake.”

He would know, right? But the Big Ten and Pac-12 leaders knew this was coming, too, which is part of the reason why they jumped off the ledge together.

“It happened a little earlier than we would’ve liked,” Smith said.

But it was going to happen eventually. Because this virus is sticking around a lot longer than anyone would like. And while coaches like Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh can point to the safety protocols and testing numbers coming out of their own facilities in June and July, the medical experts can do the same in the community at-large and make an educated guess or two or 10 or 20.

As teams prepared to begin padded practices, the challenges were about to multiply just like that, perhaps exponentially. And this isn’t the NFL, where the facilities and funding are in place — across-the-board — to provide the kind of point-of-care testing and rapid-return results necessary to prevent outbreaks. Contact tracing was another serious concern, according to Smith, particularly for football.

“And unlike professional sports, college sports cannot operate in a bubble,” Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said, echoing comments Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel and others made months ago.

Just don’t tell that to some of their peers, who aren’t ready to burst their own bubbles just yet.

Greg Sankey, the SEC commissioner whose league isn’t scheduled to play games until late September, issued a statement Tuesday saying, in part, “I look forward to learning more about the factors that led the Big Ten and Pac-12 leadership to take these actions today.”

But the fact is, medical task forces from all the conferences have been meeting weekly for the last couple months to discuss these issues. The information isn’t secret or proprietary. (The Pac-12 released a 12-page document Tuesday explaining all the factors that went into its decision.) Only the interpretations are, along with the administrative decisions that follow.

The chairman of the ACC’s medical advisory team insisted Tuesday, “We believe we can mitigate it down to a level that makes everyone safe.”

So for now, that's the stance they've decided to keep. But give it some more time, and I bet they'll reconsider. Because some crowds are safer than others these days.